Thursday, December 27, 2012

Orwell's Barcelona, December 1936 (& who really are the "wealth creators")

It was at a moment in Barcelona, of this same time, late in December 1936, that George Orwell chose to open his exceptional book “Homage to Catalonia.”

In the first page of chapter one, he describes how the city seemed to him then…

“The Anarchists were still in virtual control of Catalonia and the revolution was still in full swing. To anyone who had been there since the beginning it probably seemed even in December or January that the revolutionary period was ending; but when one came straight from England the aspect of Barcelona was something startling and overwhelming. It was the first time that I had ever been in a town where the working class was in the saddle. Practically every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the Anarchists; every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of the revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt. Churches here and there were being systematically demolished by gangs of workmen. Every shop and cafe had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal. Servile and even ceremonial forms of speech had temporarily disappeared. Nobody said 'Senior' or 'Don' or even 'Usted'; everyone called everyone else 'Comrade' and 'Thou', and said 'Salud!' instead of 'Buenos dias'. 

Tipping was forbidden by law; almost my first experience was receiving a lecture from a hotel manager for trying to tip a lift-boy. There were no private motor-cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black. The revolutionary posters were everywhere, flaming from the walls in clean reds and blues that made the few remaining advertisements look like daubs of mud. Down the Ramblas, the wide central artery of the town where crowds of people streamed constantly to and fro, the loudspeakers were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night. And it was the aspect of the crowds that was the queerest thing of all. In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no 'well-dressed' people at all.
Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls, or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for. Also I believed that things were as they appeared, that this was really a workers' State and that the entire bourgeoisie had either fled, been killed, or voluntarily come over to the workers' side; I did not realize that great numbers of well-to-do bourgeois were simply lying low and disguising themselves as proletarians for the time being.”

So, Orwell thought that not only could Socialism work but it that it was already working in Barcelona during that time, however brief.

In Orwell's earlier life he had argued that wealthy Britain was only able to exist thanks to coal miners working themselves to early deaths in underground infernos. They were the true creators of that nation’s wealth.

As William Blake outlined, the entire modern world is "underwritten by constant, speechless suffering and that "culture" begins in the callused hands of exhausted children," [to quote historian, RobertHughes.]

It all reminds me of a line in a song by another Australian expat, NickCave:

"Out of sorrow, entire worlds have been built."


CIngram said...

Thanks for posting this and linking to the rest. During our recent chat I was speaking from memory and hadn’t re-read it for a long time. He describes a situation startlingly, perhaps astonishingly like the one promised, and is almost surprised himself to discover that it could exist.

I don’t know if it is deliberate on Orwell’s part, as he was writing with hindsight, and I am certainly interpreting it likewise, but, just in the passage you quote, he seems to be describing some of the reasons it failed:

No one seems to be doing any real work. They are given roles, but the idea of doing something useful, productive, required by unmet demand, is not there.

He isn’t describing a real society or a functioning economy, but a fervour of symbolism. It’s theatre, a performance of revolution.

They’ve stolen everyone’s property for the use of ‘anyone who needs it’; who decides who needs it? what is need? I can see problems with that.

The revolution was born in vandalism, destruction and murder, he tells us; a successful society can’t be built on destruction, you need to create things.

The entrepreneurs have been driven out; work doesn’t create itself. Scratching around underground in a coal seam does not, of itself, produce wealth. It needs to be associated with systems for encouraging the most efficient production of that coal, identifying where it could be used, where it will be wanted and getting it there, persuading people to use it and pay for it, and so on. If you don’t have all the rest, the mining is an exercise in futility. And that structure, those systems, don’t just create themselves. They require a lot of work and expertise to bring into being.

Those who knew how to organize the work into something productive have been murdered or expelled. Those who might replace them are forcibly prevented from doing so. The new leaders, who might learn to do it and so create something useful, are too busy showing off in their stolen cars.

The few weeks it took before, according to Orwell, it fell apart, is the time it would have taken for the people to begin to starve. That’s when they would have lost their idealistic fervor and had to be put down by force. That’s when, and why, the tyranny began.

Brett said...

Thanks for commenting again, CI. I find myself agreeing with most of what you have said. There were huge and very basic problems with the actions (and lack of them) of those who had control of Barcelona in that short “revolutionary” period. People not used to having power are unlikely to use it wisely, at least initially. Given more time they probably would have been more creative and productive.
I'd say though that the revolution was also born from years of frustration and anger from being a virtually feudal society. It is a completely understandable inclination to destroy the institutions that actively propped-up that system of near slavery (including churches). It's not completely defensible though.
Your point about expertise is also a good one. As Orwell noted it was usually those who looked middle class who were taken and shot first because the assumption was that they were the ones able to organise.
Any society that does not give fair opportunity to those from the working classes to go beyond manual work is not a fair one and is not defensible. The UK is better than it used to be in that regard but at the very top it is still a closed shop. My own father had to leave poverty in Newcastle-upon Tyne to go to Australia to create successful business opportunities for himself. That would have been next to impossible in England in the early 1970’s.

I also strongly disagree with you on your last paragraph. Force was used to restore the previous status quo and it was war that caused food shortages much more than anything else (as it always does.)